Regional traditions, from Authors’ Night in Long Lake to small-town fairs and church dinners, are part of what makes rural life fun. There’s a financial component for sure, but such social gatherings capture a feeling of community that’s elusive in more populated areas. Eighty years ago, Elizabethtown in Essex County hosted the launch of a unique event that fit the mold perfectly: Dicker Days.
Town leaders actually turned down the idea, so it was hosted in Elizabethtown, but was the brainchild of Margaret Adams, whose persistence and resources made it a success.
Margaret was the wife of Wayman Adams, a nationally known and admired portrait artist whose most famous work was of Booth Tarkington. Other subjects he painted include James Whitcomb Riley and President Coolidge. Adams was among the famous and wealthy comprising Elizabethtown’s summer colony of residents.
After living in different locations, Wayman purchased a deteriorating mill at the village’s western outskirts and created the Old Mill Studio, which became a driving force in the town’s economy. At times more than 80 students from two dozen states attended art classes taught by Adams. Families of some students rented local cottages and houses for up to 16 weeks. With so many visitors patronizing town businesses, the effect was substantial.
But not everyone in town was well-enough off to take art classes. To invite more socialization and help improve the economic situation of those less fortunate (which were many during the Great Depression), Margaret Adams suggested the town set aside property as a public trading place, where folks could buy, sell, and barter among themselves. The town declined.
Margaret maintained it was a worthwhile idea, and in early 1935 she announced the inaugural summer of Dicker Days, to be hosted on the grounds of Old Mill Studio.
The concept was inspirational and non-exclusive: all were invited and no admission was charged. The event opened at 10 am and lasted until dusk, or until the last person left. The only rule was to leave the grounds as they were found. It was emphasized repeatedly that ALL were welcome, phrased sometimes with “bring anything from a ring to a rhinoceros,” “from an automobile to a zebra,” or “from a cookie to a house and lot.” And there were no commissions for anyone. Sellers kept whatever they were paid.
Those with little or no disposable income were encouraged to trade items or services with others, or just socialize and enjoy watching people barter. The financially comfortable were nudged to come empty-handed, buy food for the day on-site, and shop freely.
Church groups and civic organizations were urged to attend and raise funds. Trinkets, tools, toys, fresh balsam boughs, soft maple sugar, a full set of bedroom furniture, and even a threshing machine were available. Local merchants showed up to offer select items. Attic treasures were displayed and a new car was demonstrated. One man took orders for fresh-caught perch. And all that on the very first Dicker Day. It was a great success, with more enjoyable dickering than anyone had seen in a long time.
The atmosphere at Old Mill Studio was perfect for Dicker Days, initially held every other Saturday. Cars lining River Street bore license plates from several states and Canada, evidence that tourists and weekend shoppers had joined in on the fun.
Entertainment was included, adding to the ambiance. Adams’ students regularly set up amid the crowd and painted or sketched, using locals and children in various costumes as models. At other times an orchestra provided background music. Auctions were occasionally featured, and some Dicker Days had special themes.
By the third year, Dicker Days were held every Wednesday afternoon in July and August beginning at 1 pm. Since the events were so much fun and so successful as fundraisers, special Dicker Days were also held periodically during the off-season.
The list of items available was endless: birdhouses, shoes, jellies, used clothing, a horse and buggy, homemade candies, antiques, artists’ smocks (of course!), and quilts. In 1938 a new feature was added: the Dicker Day Dodger, a bulletin board where folks could post anything they had or anything they wanted. By the next Dicker Day, it was a good bet a buyer or the sought-after-item would show up.
In 1940, with war in Europe raging, a special Harvest Dicker Day was held. Instead of selling, donations to the Red Cross were requested. In 1941, Dicker Days continued as usual, with an added receptacle for donating used pots, pans, and other aluminum objects the government needed for recycling.
Margaret also opened a Victory Shop at Old Mill Studio using the same format as Dicker Days, but raising money for the benefit of multiple charities: the Red Cross, the Essex County Ambulance Service, the library, and the Elizabethtown Community Hospital.
The Victory Shop was not meant to replace Dicker Days, but in 1942 the world had changed. The nation’s wartime needs exceeded the community’s, and Dicker Days disappeared, absorbed into the more appropriately named Victory Shop. Selling was de-emphasized, and trading took on a new dimension – it was celebrated as patriotic to swap something rather than discard it during times of food, clothing, metal, and rubber shortages.
The same local beneficiaries received donations, along with a new one added to Margaret’s list. The Friends of Service Men was organized to address the needs of Essex County soldiers returning from war, easing their difficult transition back to normal life.
By the end of 1944, through fundraisers, donations, and many Dicker Day-type sales, the Victory Shop had donated the modern equivalent of more than $52,000 to charity. After the war, the shop continued to operate on a reduced basis, but without the original Dicker Day atmosphere.
For seven years, the community gathering created by Margaret Adams amounted to a beautiful slice of Americana. Dicker Days epitomize the good ol’ days for just about everyone.